Two tawny owls in ink and watercolour

Tawnies are lovely to paint – it’s all about those eyes! So, when I was asked to paint a pair on canvas to go live in a barn conversion, I jumped at the chance. Having discussed it with their soon-to-be owner we agreed on ink and watercolour on canvas in a subdued palette. Here’s how it turned out:


If you would like to do something similar, first you will need a canvas (this one was 60x80cm) and it needs to be primed with semi-absorbent ground over the gesso. I used three thin coats of Schminke ground, letting it dry overnight between each coat.


I kicked off with the ink – black Indian ink – having sketched the composition in first. Starting on the left, as I am right handed, cuts out some of the smudge possibilities. I usually work out from the eye, as if you muck them up in the first five minutes at least you haven’t wasted too much time. I painted with the ink and also used a dip pen to vary my marks. I sprinkled salt into the damp ink to get fluffy marks and tried to vary tones and gestures to keep everything lively.

Once owl one was on its way, I repeated with owl two and then put in a few back ground washes. I let it all dry thoroughly before re assessing with fresh eyes. I needed to adjust the highlights on the eyes, as they were ugly. I used Magic Eraser to lift as much as I could and then repainted getting a more pleasing shape to the eye – phew! I also used the Magic Eraser to get rid of any pencil lines.


Now the slightly scary part. If the ink has gone well, I am always a little worried to put on the colour. Each must play its part – I certainly don’t want to colour in the ink. I selected my palette of quin sienna, pyrylene green, diox purple ‘cotswold stone’, Mars violet, DS Moonglow and set about putting in some loose washes, while retaining lots of white.


I added more texture to the background washes and let everything dry. Canvas takes a lot longer than paper. Once dry, it was a case of applying H2O Ghiant matt varnish (three coats) to seal and protect the delicate surface.

And that is that – this is a fun, fast and direct way of working. I think it has a sense of energy.


4 thoughts on “Two tawny owls in ink and watercolour”

  1. Carole Koerner

    Love the owls and your use of Indian ink. Have tried watercolour canvases but don’t like them so will take your advice and coat with ground first and see if I can get the loose water effect

    1. I thought the watercolour canvas should be good to go. If you use an ordinary canvas with gesso, you can put the ground on top – Schminke, Golden and Daniel Smith all do them. I have used them all. They are all good, some need 2 or 3 coats – the more coats, the more absorbent it is. Depends on your style and what you are after. Have fun. I love it!

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